Over dinner at The Four Seasons, Brian Williams takes off his regimental tie and discusses his burgeoning side career in comedy. The evening we meet, protests are still roiling the streets of Cairo, Libya is descending into civil war, and the NBC Nightly News anchor is coming off a reporting trip to Egypt. He has also just finished a two-week stretch in which he visited The Daily Show, Letterman, and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. There are full-time comics who would trade their rarest Lenny Bruce record for just one of those bookings.
Williams has been honing his act for some time—the first of many entertaining appearances on Conan’s Late Night occurred back during the Clinton administration—but it’s only recently that he’s shown how funny he can be. And as demand for his comic talents has grown, balancing the resulting opportunities with his day job has proved more challenging. Such are the hazards of juggling the roles of anchor and semi-pro wiseacre that the necktie he removed as we sat down for supper—a purple number, bordering on the foppish—had earlier that day been the source of mild controversy: To buy time for his appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s show, which tapes in the late afternoon, Williams had prerecorded the headlines segment that opens his 6:30 newscast earlier than usual, then, on his way back to the newsroom from Fallon’s studio, spilled soda on himself, requiring a tie change before the live newscast began. Eagle-eyed viewers noticed the switcheroo, prompting Williams to put up a blog post in which he came clean about l’affaire cravate and offered an apology to “the tie community.”
Williams is quick to note that he never set out to be anything but a newsman in the mold of his childhood hero, Walter Cronkite. Those early Conan outings weren’t the product of ambition or aptitude but of a de facto company policy that asked in-house talent to fill in when unreliable rock stars or overscheduled starlets canceled at the last minute. (Williams made 25 appearances during Conan’s Late Night run; Al Roker, no one’s idea of funny, made 28.) But Williams is being too humble. The man has real ability, and he’s earned the respect of some of the funniest people in the business. “He has that kind of timing that you have to have, that you can’t learn,” says Tina Fey. “He knows his instrument as a newsman, but he’s very aware of his comic instrument as well,” says Saturday Night Live head writer Seth Meyers.
Told of Meyers’s admiration for his comic instrument, the anchor replies, “That’s odd, because we’ve never belonged to a health club together, and we’re both in successful long-term relationships.” It’s a classic Williams line: suggestive enough to shock—did Brian Williams just tell a penis joke?—yet veiled enough that it doesn’t seem untoward coming from the man my grandmother trusts to keep her up-to-date on rising health-care costs.
And it’s material like this that has won Williams a following beyond my grandmother’s demographic, even as the Nightly News, despite its wide ratings lead, follows the rest of the network newscasts on a slow, steady decline in viewers and impact. A Brian Williams 30 Rock cameo is catnip for recappers, a visit with Jimmy Fallon an occasion for a #BrianWilliams lovefest on Twitter.
Williams hasn’t given up on the evening news; far from it. “During times of great moment, we see a huge audience turn to us,” he says. In February, when he reported on the revolution in Egypt from the streets of Cairo, the Nightly News enjoyed its highest ratings in six years. The writing, however, remains on the wall, and even Williams acknowledges that a swath of the American viewing public prefers Jon Stewart’s fake newsroom to NBC’s real one. In such a landscape, the anchor who can tell a joke—and take one—is the one who remains relevant. Though his career in comedy may have started by happenstance, Williams has managed to stay in the conversation because he can speak in the vernacular of his new competition.
Contrast Williams with his rival Katie Couric, who is preparing a possible exit from CBS’s anchor desk when her contract expires in June. David Letterman had Couric on the Late Show recently and ribbed her about her rumored departure. “Once you take that anchor chair, that’s what you do,” he said, suggesting that the job is still the pinnacle of a career. “Really?” replied Couric, clearly unconvinced.
For Couric, the move from the Today show to the Evening News ultimately brought a net loss in prestige. Despite her successes—she was among the first to bewilder Sarah Palin on national television—she never found a way, as Williams has, to counter the forces conspiring to diminish the anchor’s cachet. “To some extent, the job is what you make of it,” Williams says. With her new book, The Best Advice I Ever Got, Couric has just made the job a platform for publishing an earnest compendium of life lessons from the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Madeleine Albright. Williams publishes a blog called BriTunes on which he posts videos of himself palling around with Julian Casablancas and the dudes from Deer Tick.